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Like trees, boats should be wooden
Hugh Whall
January 25, 1965
So says a man who builds the best and wouldn't reach out for fiber glass if he were drowning
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January 25, 1965

Like Trees, Boats Should Be Wooden

So says a man who builds the best and wouldn't reach out for fiber glass if he were drowning

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I don't like the stuff. I don't like the way it looks. I don't like the way it feels. I don't even like the way it smells. The truth is," added the frustrated traditionalist, "fiber glass stinks!" Nevertheless, after years of unswerving fidelity to wooden hulls, that particular sailor has just bought himself a brand-new boat built of laminated fiber glass. "I suddenly realized," he said in lame apology, "that I enjoyed sailing more than I did sanding, caulking, priming, painting and pumping."

This attitude on the part of many other sailors, traditionalists and iconoclasts alike, has steadily increased both the output and consumption of fiber glass boats. At last year's National Motor Boat Show in New York 54% of the 475 boats on display were made of fiber glass. At the show that opened in New York this week the percentage of fiber glass over other materials had risen to 56%, and there seems little doubt that it will rise still higher at the 1966 show. More and more dinghies, outboards, cruisers, sports fishermen and ocean racers are blossoming out in fiber glass. And because of the ease with which it can reproduce a design, more and more new racing classes are born in fiber glass. Many old ones, among them Snipes, Lightnings and Wood Pussies—all traditionally dedicated to wood—are now admitting hulls of fiber glass into their ranks.

One notable exception to this trend is the Star class, which is still restricted to wood. And one notable holdout from the increasing army of fiber glass converts is the man who builds, and will continue to build—in wood—the best Star boats in the world. He is a 34-year-old artisan from San Diego named Carl Eichenlaub, and his revulsion and distaste for fiber glass is equaled only by that of the teredo worm. "I'll give up building boats before I ever use that stuff," he says.

Carl Eichenlaub's friends sometimes refer to him as Eichenslob—and not without reason. He wears a T shirt that Marlon Brando would hesitate to spit on, and his torn and stained blue jeans hang at least three degrees below the equator of his waistline. For years nobody has known the precise color of his close-cropped hair, because it invariably is camouflaged by several coats of marine paint and is generously powdered with sawdust.

The San Diego, Calif. boatyard where Eichenlaub practices his art is not much tidier than its owner. Power tools smudged with grime and pitted with rust lurk here and there under huge, dirty tarpaulins. Snakes of mysterious pipe wend their way aimlessly about. Scraps of cedar and mahogany strew the ground along with bits of rusty cast iron. An ancient Star boat with daylight seeping through its open seams occupies the only clear space in the yard, and near it rests the skeleton of a half-finished cruising boat that belongs to a do-it-yourself amateur who somehow persuaded the yard owner to rent him a corner to work in. "We're going to load it up with two of everything so we'll be ready when the rain starts," explains Carl Eichenlaub laconically.

The office from which Boatbuilder Eichenlaub supervises this garden of prosperity consists largely of rows and rows of dusty paint cans, a few pieces of spare boating gear and a broad front window with a sign that announces firmly at all times of the day or night: "Closed."

"If I let them think we were open," says Eichenlaub, "people might come in and bother me."

Despite his precaution and because Eichenlaub-built boats have, at one time or another, dominated the Snipe class, the Lightning class and especially the Star class, people bother him anyway. An Eichenlaub Star won every world championship from 1957 to 1960 and again in 1963. Of course it helped to have skippers like Lowell North, Joe Duplin and Bill Ficker sailing them, but a good skipper sailing a good boat will beat a good skipper sailing a bad one every time.

Because there are more good skippers than there are good boats, orders for Eichenlaub's Stars pour in from all over the world. Even the Russians have shown some interest. But if an order does not contain a cash deposit, say those close to Carl, he just throws it into the waste-basket.

In this age of production lines, quality control and cost inventories Eichenlaub is characteristically vague about his yard's output. "Good Lord, I haven't the faintest idea," he said when asked how many Stars he had built altogether. But loose records lying around the shop show that he built at least 17 Stars last year at $3,400 apiece, 11 Lightnings at $2,200 and six Snipes at $1,425. He is equally vague about how long it may take him and his lone assistant, George Froshower, to complete a job.

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